Trying to Comprehend

Hello from Starbucks in the Library,

While I hope that the propensity for being thought provoking, and by extension somewhat political, in this fractured world has not merely offended, it seems increasingly more difficult to stand on the sidelines while at least two branches of our government seem intent on destroying the other. For me the jury is still out on the third, but the 5-4 split, regardless the balance, is quite indicative of the country that faces us each morning as I try to wipe the sleep from my eyes and stumble to the shower, fearful of what the latest 280 character (did Twitter really need to double that ability to spew idiocy) tiradic-tantrum might be. In the two weeks since a 19 year old young man with a difficult background found it somehow reasonable to use another AR15 style weapon to massacre numerous students, killing 17 of them, our government, at the continuing behest of the NRA’s leadership, refuses to consider that the style of weapons available all too easily had nothing to do with the outcome at Parkland. Mental illness is certainly an issue; failure of a system is still an issue: so I am not disagreeing with that. How can they not admit that having such a weapon easily available is also a contributing factor to or in the final horrific outcome? How many NRA members would be willing to admit that limiting semi-automatic weapons, bump-stocks, and eliminating high capacity clips are common sense? Few people would be inconvenienced by such limitations. Fewer yet would have to alter their gun practices. You will have more than a difficult time convincing me that our founders anticipated how some would highjack the Constitution with the 2nd Amendment as their foundational protection clause, forget the 14th Amendment. Wayne LaPierre, with his salary of over 5,000,000.00 a year from his various gun-toting positions, can espouse his ridiculous vitriol from the plush surroundings of wherever with such a salary. Heaven forbid he think critically. I am sorry, but common sense will not negate the 2nd Amendment. If I were to somehow join the NRA, or was a member, I would find his comments and his logic more embarrassing than I already do. Throughout my travels to other countries, it is not uncommon to be asked about two issues: the President and our love affair with guns. In either case, my answer is the same: I am embarrassed. That is not an easy answer for this Marine Corps veteran.

The past couple of weeks I have spent intentional time in assigning papers and speaking in my classes about the need for a person to be able to think critically. I have spoken about the importance of that critical thinking as well as the following need to analyze a situation, followed by doing careful research. I have often pondered how it is that we find ourselves in the place where if you disagree with someone they are now an enemy?  How have we lost almost all sense of civility or decorum? How is it that if we disagree with someone, rather than talking it out it is easier to pull a gun and shoot them? I would argue that we seem to be back in the early days of Christianity when if you disagreed you were a heretic and merely burned at the stake. Well our burning might be metaphorical now and the stake might be a tweet, but it seems we are back there once again. It still amazes me that some fundamentalists or conservative Christians can back what is happening in either the government or in our gun-loving society. As I write this, the Reverend Billy Graham is one his way to the Capitol to lie in honor, only one of four citizens to be given that distinction in our history. I remember his nightly television crusades growing up. My mother would sit in her recliner night after night to listen to him. I remember one of my close what we now call middle school friends who was Baptist inviting me to altar calls. I was afraid as the little Lutheran boy. I did not know what to do. What I still appreciate is that Reverend Graham consciously stayed apolitical. While his Christian message was rather conservative, he was not offensive, and yet challenged through his preaching of the gospel. He merely asked people to consider. I do not remember him leaving an overall message of do as I do or you are evil or wrong. While I had probably never considered the word “rhetoric” then, he was a brilliant rhetorician. He could reach across the aisle, pun intended, in ways most never could. I think he was the sort of quintessential person at being able to connect both the mind and the heart. He did not ask people to follow blindly. Following something blindly is to follow something without thought. As I tell my students regularly. God gave you a brain to do more than hold your ears apart. I think the Reverend Graham wanted people to read, to think, to ponder, to come to an understanding. I am often asked what my favorite Bible verse is. For me it is simple. It is Hebrews 11:1. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” It seems to me that helps us accept that which is not only incomprehensible, but also to have a willingness to search and believe is that which seems impossible. Without hope, we are doomed. Without hope, we have little desire to move forward. Without hope, we give up or refuse to imagine the possibilities.

That is how it is when I think about the gun issue. I do believe for the first time (and certainly in some time) people are actually standing up to their politicians or the gun lobby. The impetus is not our Congressional leaders. It certainly is not the President, though he as gone further than I imagined possible. It is the classmates of the 17 who have found and used their voices. It is some corporations like Delta, who is now threatened by the Georgia GOP to lose their tax breaks. This morning, I have heard that Dick’s Sports will stop selling semi-automatic weapons. I am stunned, but exceedingly pleased. At least some elements of our society are standing up against the NRA, and putting a stopper in their barrels.  Wayne LaPierre claims that he wants school safety and legal gun ownership. Certainly, I believe he does, but arming teachers and adding the possibility of more guns does not create more safety. Legal gun ownership has certainly demonstrated that the laws we do have are not effective. The issue of mental health is an issue, certainly, but it is access to guns period. Access (under the guise of the 2nd Amendment) to any gun regardless its ability is not in the spirit of protection. It is not in the spirit of good or reasonable sportsmanship. Semi-automatic weapons are meant to kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible. Why does the average person need to do this? These are not hard questions. These are not questions that the NRA seems willing or capable of answering. Their other spokesperson, Dana Loesch, the conservative talk show host, argued vehemently at CPAC. “It is not our job to follow up on red flags. It is not our job to make sure that states are reporting to the background check system. It is not our job.” While I will agree with her on one level, you should think they would want to support better enforcement and use their 5 million members to push legislatures to be more intentional in all of this. It would certainly keep the heat off the NRA. To say it is not their job is to separate themselves from the very society in which they live and then provide them even more reason to hold on their own form of idolatry: love of their guns above all else. Again, amazing how they will abhor abortion as killing and hold on to weapons that can kill even more.

This week at school, for the second year in a row, we had a group from a Private Catholic Boys Preparatory High School on campus to protest a social issue. Last year they were demonstrating against LBGTQA rights; this year it was abortion. The school, St. Louis de Montfort Academy, is a school that was founded in 1995. There is actually something positive to be said about speaking out about your convictions and certainly these young men are doing so, but their rather pompous air that seems to be more judging than converting is a bit problematic, especially on a college campus. That is not because I see college as a sort of social moralism, but rather because it requires a person to think about audience and purpose and think about the complexity of their world a bit more inclusively. Their sort of “my-way-or-the-highway” moralism will not do well as they stand in formation and bring attention to themselves. There seems to be a struggle to demonstrate a sense of humility, which was certainly part of the Blessed Annunciation and the woman being visited. A principle trait of Mary, the mother of Jesus (one of the grounding people or tenants of this particular school) was her humility. Again, the irony or lack of consistent rhetorical strategy is a bit surprising, or maybe not. Those who claim the high moral ground often fall the farthest. As I often told my parishioners  when I was the parish pastor, it did not say pastor anywhere on my birth certificate. I am certainly not a perfect person. I was not then and I am not now. There are times I probably do or say things merely to prove I can. I know that surprises all of you who know me best. Yet, I am pretty fragile, and, in fact, much more so than most expect. I think that fragility continues to manifest itself in ways I struggle to comprehend. Nonetheless, it is there. I think that is why I am both settled in a place, but certainly not sedentary. There is always something to ponder, somewhere to explore, and some place to travel and attempt to understand. I think that is the problem to way too many people; they are content to accept something without chewing on it a bit. Too willing to swallow anything fed to them without taking the time to intentionally smell it, carefully taste it, slowly savor it. It returns me to the significance of critical thinking, of being involved in some kind of thoughtful analysis. I am struggling daily as I read the headlines and listen to so many people and all there seems to be is distrust, disrespect, dispute, discrimination, dismissal, disregard, dissidence: I guess that is enough dissing for the moment. The picture above is of the Canadian Parliament. It is quite evident to me that our Northern neighbor seems to practice much of what we believe ourselves to be. I think we could learn from them.

How did we become such a country? Again, I love what this country was founded on the basic idea that we are a government of the people, by the people. I love that we are a nation of immigrants, a nation that has been a beacon of light for a number of other places. I know that sounds idealistic. I know it sounds like there was this easy formation. I know better. The issues of class, gender, race, faith have been struggles in this country like many others. What we have been able to do is appropriately transfer power from one administration to the other. There has been a basic respect for the balance of powers and a belief that our government at least tries to do the right thing. We are a country of law and precedent, but it feels like so much of that is in a precarious position now. It seems like so much of this is what we were rather than what we are. I am trying to comprehend this. How did we become a nation of finger pointers, a nation of blamers, a nation of selfish navel gazers? I do believe we are still more than that. I see it every day among the students and others I work with. There are some incredibly giving and wonderful people who see a bigger picture and desire to do the best they can. I want to believe we can pull through this, but it will be hard work. It will take critical thinking and even more critical doing. Doing what is best for the other rather than merely what one individual wants. It will require us to be honest with ourselves and with the other. It will require the opposite of the list I noted above. We will need to be more trusting, more respectful, more willing to listen, more accepting, more accommodating. We will need to be willing to reach out to the other and believe that disagreement can lead to something other than a negative outcome. It will take thinking and being able to comprehend that which is beyond us. It will take believing in the other and comprehending difference or diversity as opportunity. I merely want to have hope that so much more can come from this current struggle, but I will turn to the scripture I believe guides me. In a different way, I offer this prayer from one of my favorite artists. This song was sung at my ordination, and it was something I wish I had done a better job of earlier in my life. How it is something I still try to do.

Thanks as always for reading.

Dr. Martin